Your Belly Dance Style Doesn’t Matter Without a Strong Foundation

If you’ve been belly dancing for a while, someone has probably asked you: What style do you do? We’re so tempted and even pressured into choosing a style that sometimes we focus so much on the trappings of the dance and not the fundamental technique and history of it.

And if that’s the case, then your belly dance style doesn’t matter. Not without a strong foundation.

Belly dance style and building a strong foundation

Some of you know that I am an architect’s daughter. I grew up visiting building sites, walking through the frames of homes that my dad drafted out with T-squares and french curves, all by hand. The smell of fresh-cut wood and drying exterior paint reminds me of spending time with my dad, watching him do his craft.

My dad was not only a designer of homes, but a builder of them. As a licensed contractor, he built the two-story addition to the home in which I grew up. He was always fixing things, improving them, and repairing the house. He’d spread out building plans on the kitchen counter, and I was fascinated by how he was able to create a building on paper that stood up against earthquakes, storms, and the test of time.

Growing up around buildings in progress has shaped how I view learning and teaching dance. I use architecture analogies a lot in my teaching, because dancers have to start their training with a strong foundation, just like a house.

A Foundation Keeps You Standing

To be a strong dancer, you need a strong technique foundation

A foundation is a foundation. What style will this house be? Who cares if it doesn’t stand up against the elements.

And what does a foundation do? It keeps a building, or your body, standing.

Houses, as far as we know, have no sense of their place in space. Dancers, however, absolutely must!

For your body, that means dynamic alignment, awareness of your body line, the relationship between your core and distal ends (fancy term for the ends of your hands and feet) and of the connection between your head and tail, just to name a few basic elements.

As belly dancers, we are so tempted to learn a style before we build a strong body and kinesthetic awareness on which to set a stylization. We’re attracted to the look or vibe of a particular kind of belly dance before we even have the skills to integrate that style into our movement repertoire.

But we must learn first how to walk, how to use our feet, how to place our arms, how to move our pelvis in the ways this dance requires so we have all of those movements available to us when we do learn or perform any belly dance style. We must practice these techniques until they become effortless, habitual, and part of ourselves.

From there, we must learn the theoretical and historical foundations of belly dance. We need to learn basic history, understanding how this dance has changed through the decades. We must also start building (pun alert!) our embodied knowledge of temporal (say, Golden Era Egyptian) and regional styles. Then we must also familiarize ourselves with the political and social aspects of this dance, such as questions of embodied Orientalism and gender essentialism.

When we begin with a strong foundations, we can then layer any style on top.

Looking Beneath and Beyond Style

Well, every well-built house has a strong foundation. And when you take away the style of the home, whether it be a Ranch, Rambler, Eichler, Craftsman, or Painted Lady, a foundation anchors the home to the earth.

Strong foundations for belly dance stylization

A Craftsman-style home in California

Our dance technique also grounds us, and gives us refined and habitual tools from which to pull. When we attend a workshop or a class that does focus on a particular stylization, we can better absorb the essence and nuances of that instructor or style without having to ask basic questions like, “How do I do an undulation?”

If you have a strong base in alignment, technique, and basic understanding of the different regional belly dance styles, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll get out of the one-off workshops that you take with various instructors.

Be Versed in Many Stylizations

Even an elaborate Victorian has the same basic walls, plumbing, and electrical as the Craftsman above. Just as extra decoration doesn’t negate the fact that this is still a house, a different costume doesn’t make the style of dance change either.

When my dad was in architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, he had to not only learn how to design buildings that would be practical, but also artful. He told me that he was required to design homes in various historical styles. Because of this rigorous education, he was able to design the addition to our home in the 1980s, blending it seamlessly with the older building from the 1920s.

Indeed, as belly dancers, a comprehensive education includes learning how to dance in different historical and regional styles… from the sweeping figure-8s of the Golden Era, to the fiery turns of 1970s Turkish Oryantal, to the lyrical and still grounded shimmies of contemporary Egyptian Oriental.

When we integrate these different movement qualities into our bodies, we are doing ourselves a great service. By learning the different stylizations of belly dance, we are embodying the history, regional preferences, and legacy of the dancers who have come before us… and in the process, we create our own personal style that reflects all of our influences.

And just as some architects end up specializing in certain kinds of buildings, we dancers can specialize in the stylizations in which we are the most versed. It should be an organic process of exploration and discovery, not a decision made when you have just started dancing.

So, when we ask our fellow dancers, “what style do you do?” it shouldn’t matter. We should all start with strong foundations. And that means knowing your body, and how to use it efficiently and effortlessly.

I teach foundational technique and several stylizations. Check out my upcoming workshops or schedule a Skype private to become a stronger, more versatile dancer in less time.


How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Many of you have asked, “How can I learn choreography faster?”

Believe me, I’ve had my own struggles with learning sequencing, movement details, and full choreographies.

I have always been a musically-driven performer, whether it be in ice dance, in competitive figure skating, and now, in belly dance. But that really became clear to me when I was earning my MA and taking several modern dance classes a week. In those classes, the music often just acted as a backbeat, a time keeper, and didn’t inspire the movement. No, the live musician would watch the dancers and riff off of them, rather than the other way around.

In those classes, I had a harder time remembering combinations because I had no music to guide me. I had to find the movement in accompaniment, even if it was a struggle.

Thankfully, my main dance genre is intimately tied to music, and chances are that yours is too.

So, what’s the one thing I would tell someone who asks me how to learn choreography faster?

How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Learn. The. Music.

Of all the dance forms in the world, belly dance is one of the most intimately tied to melody and percussion. Our job as dancers is to interpret and transmit the music to the audience through our movements, expression, and sentiment. This requires refined technique, yes, but it also requires a sharp and perceptive ear.

Of course, learning the feet first will help you, but if the instructor is connecting the footwork of a dance to the music, then you must also be familiar with the music.

A recent study showed that people who were perceived to be “better dancers” were better able to predict where a rhythm or melody would fall. That is, they had a better musical sense. So, it follows that if you know your music, that is, you can predict what sections are next, then you will be better able to dance, and execute set choreography… and improvise. (Unfortunately, that study also revealed that some people are “beat deaf,” and unable to stay within the auditory rhythmic groove of a song.)

Following Along Isn’t Enough

Sometimes it’s easy to let the energy of the room and the other dancers sweep you away that you aren’t truly internalizing the movements and the music. We look at our colleagues and follow them, letting our mirror neurons do the work that our ears could be doing. Instead of listening to the music and letting that guide our movements, we rely on our fellow dancers.

And while we must be able to flock and follow, without intimate understanding of the songs to which we perform, we’re literally lost.

If you’re not inherently musical, this just means that you’ll need to listen to the music more often, without dancing to it. The more you know a song, can hum the melody or beat, or playback the song in your head, the better you’re going to remember a choreography to that song.

Let’s Map Out a Song

Often music is described as having sections to which we assign a letter. Section A, B, C, and so on. Whether we’re learning someone else’s choreography or creating our own, we must know the underlying architecture of the song to which we’re dancing.

We can easily hear the different sections of a familiar pop song. Let’s look at “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga.

  1. We have an intro of 5 counts of 8. 5 is actually an unusual number of 8 counts to introduce a song, so that adds some interest.
  2. Then we have the first section, which we’ll call Verse A, which lasts for 4 counts of 8.
  3. Then we have a pre-chorus, section B, for 4 counts of 8.
  4. After that, it’s the actual chorus—”just dance”—section C, for 4 counts of 8.
  5. A little 4-for-nothing follows before we revisit A again, but this time with different lyrics.
  6. We get another pre-chorus B, and then the chorus again.
  7. Then the song changes it up with a new section, which is the guest singer, Colby O’Donis, with his rapid-fire rap-like singing for 4 counts of 8.
  8. O’Donis sings a melodic variation of part B for 4 counts of 8, so I call this B var.
  9. Then we get a stripped down version of the chorus, C, for 2 counts of 8 (C var.), then the chorus resumes as per usual for the next four counts of 8.
  10. Instrumental time! 2 counts of 8.
  11. New section: E, which acts as a bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  12. And another section, F, another kind of bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  13. We return to C var., then the chorus, as in number 8, above.
  14. The song gives us the satisfaction of hearing the chorus C one more time for 2 more counts of 8, before ending on count 1.

Even a “simple” pop song like “Just Dance” makes more sense when we break it down. But now, if we were to learn a choreography to it, we have a skeleton and framework with which to work. These chunks will help us remember the dance, because now we have a better understanding of the musical structure.

A song might have lots of different melodic and rhythmic sections.  The original cinematic version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song “Gana El Hawa” has many different sections, with only one repeat of the chorus at the very end.

And note that you don’t have to read music, understand notation, chords, or any additional music theory to get started… although I recommend that you have at least a basic understanding of rhythmic notation if you’re considering yourself intermediate-level or above.

Great Choreography Will Echo the Musical Structure

Even the most complex choreography can be learned in small chunks. In fact, cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero, found that adult brains need new information to be presented in smaller chunks than children do. Adults have less time and less brain “real estate” to assimilate new information. (The good news is that there’s no “magic window” during which we have to learn new skills; we can learn at any age.)

When we approach choreography as smaller sections, we do our brains a favor and making the learning process easier.

A great choreography, in belly dance at least, follows the structure of the song to which it is set. This doesn’t mean always repeating the exact same movement every time a melodic phrase repeats, but it does mean that the movement isn’t random.

Let’s look at Suhaila Salimpour’s “Yanna Yanna.” The same melody repeats quite frequently, but the movement phrases themselves don’t always repeat. The orchestration changes, with different instruments taking the lead and being highlighted as the song progresses. But then, at the end, the dancers return to the counterclockwise turns with rib cage circles that they did at the very beginning of the piece. This section acts as a book end and reflects the arrangement of the song.

Choreography: Now In Extra Chunky

The next time you are learning a new choreography, don’t look at the dance as a whole. Look at it as little bits that make a whole. Map out the music yourself in sections, as I did with “Just Dance.” Listen to the music at home, in the car, or at work, so you can have a deeper understanding of its sequencing.

Even if you’re learning a short combination, approach it in parts. Chances are that the instructor will teach it to you in sections, so use those sections to your advantage. As you’re learning the dance, give each section a name. I like to think of each section by the step by which it starts, such as “Rib slides, rib circle” or “Circle-2-3-4.”

Map it out, work it out, and you’ll nail that new choreography in no time!

What tips and tricks do you have for learning choreography or dissecting a new piece of music? How do you like to organize your creative process into a dance?

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13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips You Should Know

Today’s post is brought to you by Angelique Hanesworth, dance instructor and photographer based in New York State. Originally posted to her Facebook page, I thought it could use a little extra visibility and love. 


Following proper dance class etiquette is essential for dance students at all levels. Some of you might know these tips, but we can always use a little reminder.

General rule of thumb: Be aware, be respectful, be kind (to others as well as yourself) and have fun!

13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips guest post by Angelique Hanesworth

Essential Dance Class Etiquette

1. Arrive on time. Arriving late to class is disruptive to the other students, the teacher, and can set up the potential for injury if you do not have enough time to properly warm up. If for some reason you must be late, contact the instructor beforehand to get approval.

Most dance classes, regardless of where they are or what style of dance they teach won’t allow you into class if you’re more than 10 minutes late.

2. Have a good attitude. Energy begets energy, and for a lot of students, this is their one hour a week that they get to leave the house and do something fun for themselves. It can be frustrating when we don’t get something on which we’ve been working, but remember, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
We all have our own challenges—every last one of us—and learning how to manage them properly will help you on the dance floor, as well as in life.

3. Turn off your cell phones. ‘Nuff said.

4. Try not to leave the dance floor for the duration of class. If an emergency arises, leave discretely.

5. Do not talk when the teacher is speaking. You might think you are being quiet, but if you’re talking, you’re likely not as quiet as you think you are. If you have a question for the teacher, wait for the right moment, and raise your hand. Make sure it is a question that you cannot figure out on your own.

6. Do not correct other students. That is the teacher’s responsibility.

7. Do not correct the teacher. If the teacher has made a mistake (which is bound to happen) and it is causing confusion in the class, it is fine to politely ask for clarification. If you have a difference of opinion or philosophical perspective, it is best to save it for after class. Give the teacher the courtesy of judging for themselves whether it is something that should be shared with everyone else.

8. Take correction well. If a teacher corrects you, congratulations! That means they are invested in your development. Perfection is a myth, so don’t let your ego get in the way of your progress. If you hear a correction being given to another student, pay attention! There is a good chance it applies to you as well!

9. Practice. You go to dance class to learn, but you’ll make your progress when you practice outside of class. Make sure to do all homework, and work on any combinations/choreography, so that upon returning to class, you can spend the majority of your time learning new material instead of spending that time on review.

10. Wear appropriate attire and mind your hygiene. Proper attire will vary from class to class, but as a general rule, you are training, not performing. Wear something you can get sweaty in and move comfortably in. Keep your jewelry to a minimum; it can be noisy and catch on clothing. Please wear deodorant to class. And many people are sensitive to scents, so please avoid perfume.

11. Keep it clean! No food or gum on the dance floor. A water bottle is fine. As a general rule, if you brought it in, take it out.

12. Use common sense. There is no way I can list every etiquette rule for every situation. Being respectful of the other students, the teacher, and being a hard worker will cover many of the bases.

13. Have FUN! Ultimately, this is YOUR class too, and you should be having a good time. Every teacher feels good when their students leave the room happy, so enjoy the process. Dance is an enriching experience, so be proud of your hard work, celebrate your accomplishments, and keep your eye on the continuing journey ahead.

Dance teachers: What etiquette tips would you like new students to know? What would you like to remind your current students? Share yours in the comments!


Angelique HanesworthAbout the Author

Angelique Hanesworth began belly dancing in 1997, training with top talent from all over the world. Specializing in a Salimpour interpretation of Modern Oriental dance, she holds her Level 5 certification in the Suhaila Salimpour Format and Level 4 in the Jamila Salimpour Format. She is a highly sought after performer, with experience in theater productions, festivals, weddings, restaurants, and more. Between regular classes and workshops, she has taught hundreds of students and is known for her clear direction and creative insight. Angelique can also be seen on her acclaimed instructional DVD, Advanced Layering Drills. Angelique holds a degree in Computer Science, and black belts in Wing-Chun Kung Fu and Ishin-Ryu Karate. She is an accomplished portrait photographer, as well as Mom to two feisty and wonderful girls. Visit her website at angeliquebellydance.com





What You Need to Know About Morton’s Toe

On my last post about feet, one of the comments was about Morton’s Toe. Morton’s Toe, also known as Morton’s Foot—named after one Dudley Joy Morton—or “Greek Toe,” likely affects about 20% of the population. It challenges the body’s balance and can cause muscle and joint pain, but with the right tools it is manageable. I suspect that many people (like myself) who are told that they have high or fallen arches actually have this condition, but don’t know it.

What to know about Morton's Toe blog post by Abigail Keyes

6 Facts about Morton’s Toe

1. Even though it’s called “Morton’s Toe,” it really refers to the bones behind the toes.
In a “normal” foot, the first metatarsal extends more forward than the rest. This causes the big toe to hit the ground first while walking, running, and dancing. (Cue “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.) For those of us with Morton’s Toe, the second metatarsal makes contact first, throwing off our balance, and putting pressure on the second toe and middle of the foot.

Common callus areas for feet with Morton's Toe

Common callus areas for feet with Morton’s Toe.

Some people with this foot structure have second toes that are visibly longer than the rest, like the feet on the Statue of Liberty. Others might not. An X-ray will show for sure.

2. Symptoms include pain in the ball of the foot. If you’ve had pain in the ball of the foot, you might have been told that you have “metatarsalagia.” A fancy word that isn’t really a condition, but just a description of discomfort and inflammation.

Additional clues can be where your foot develops calluses, particularly on the outside of the big toe, underneath the second metatarsal head, and on the outside of the foot right behind the baby toe.

Morton’s toe can also make you prone to plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

3. It can create trigger point and referred pain all the way up the body.
If your second metatarsal is sticking out more then the rest, it can make your foot feel wobbly. Indeed, your body is trying to balance on a single point, where people without this condition can more easily place their weight on either side of the ball of the foot.

This constant balancing act can cause the shins, calves, quads, hips, and back to overcompensate. These areas are bracing and stabilizing so much that it causes muscle and joint fatigue. Your body has to work overtime just to keep you standing, let alone the extra balance and muscular engagement it takes to be in relevé!

If you’re prone to shin splints, calf pain, tight IT bands, and lower back pain, it might all start in your feet.

4. It’s not the same as Morton’s Neuroma, although the two are sometimes related. Apparently podiatry attracts a lot of Dr. Mortons. The neuroma is named after one Thomas George Morton. Totally different guy.

Morton’s Neuroma occurs when nerves between the metatarsal bones are trapped and become inflamed. It can lead to severe pain as well as numbness. Some people with Morton’s Toe do develop the fibrous neuromas, but not all. Those with the neuroma should avoid high heels and constrictive shoes.

5. Special insoles can help mitigate pain and improve balance. I’ve been able to manage the discomfort through regular self-massage, exercises, and insoles. A few years ago, the pain in the ball of my left foot was so awful, I couldn’t put weight on it. A (not-so-great) podiatrist told me I must have had a stress fracture, but the X-rays showed nothing wrong. Thankfully, a fellow dancer referred me to her dad, a trigger point massage therapist (shout-out to Chuck Duff). He worked on my calves, shins, feet, and hips, and within a few hours, the pain had disappeared.

Chuck also suggested I try out the insoles sold at mortonsfoot.com. I don’t get any kickback for linking to them, but I will say that their insoles have saved my dancing. They have thin insoles that I wear in my jazz shoes if I know I’ll be an intense workshop or on my feet for an extended amount of time. Their thicker insoles fit right into my regular boots and street shoes.

6. Massage can really help. Massaging the muscles between the shins, the calf muscles, and the soles of the feet will help loosen the muscles and joints in the foot itself, allowing it to relax. Use a foam roller, stick roller, or a lacrosse ball. I like to use a lacrosse ball on my shins and calves, because it’s a bit more precise than the foam roller. For your shins, place the ball on the floor, then kneel on the ball, as shown in this video. Find the tender parts, and don’t put too much weight on it, but just enough to relax the muscles. The same technique works for your calves.

Also you can massage the muscles between metatarsals with your fingers or a soft pencil eraser. This will help the toes spread out more, distributing your weight more evenly throughout the ball of the foot. The website of Bonnie Prudden, a pioneer of trigger point therapy, has lots of great exercises to mitigate the pain of a long second metatarsal.

7. It’s not a deformity, and if you have it, you’re not a freak (unless you want to be). This kind of foot structure is pretty common, so if you have it, accept it, discover ways to manage it, and give some extra love to your feet. They deserve it.

If you have Morton’s Toe, how have you managed it? Share in the comments!





Minding Your Feet: The Key to Clean Dancing

Your feet are the key to clean dancing. If you’re a belly dancer, as most of my readers are, you might be consumed with learning and refining your pelvis and torso articulations, but how much attention are you paying to your feet? It seems so obvious, but chances are you’re not paying as much attention as you should be!

Better dancing through your feet
The Feet are the Foundation of Dance

Most dance forms are performed upright and on the feet. There are a few exceptions, of course, like breaking (which also does feature footwork like the 6-step, but mostly features acrobatic floorwork), but for the most part, most dance traditions rely on the timing of the feet to determine the rest of the dance. The feet are our connection to the floor and the earth beneath us. They need to be strong, supple, and if we are performing to music, they need to be on the beat.

Most of the time when I see dancers who are struggling with the technical and musical elements of dance training, it’s because they are not entirely connected to their feet.

We learn to move our feet at a very young age. Most children start learning to walk at two years old. That means, most of us have been balancing ourselves on our feet since we were toddlers. In fact, that’s where the term “toddler” comes from, right? As we learn to walk we “toddle” around, finding our balance and our own personal rhythm.

For dance forms that are inextricable from music, the timing of steps and footwork are essential. Just as a house must have a sound foundation on which to build a house that will stand for years, our feet must provide that same strong base for our movement.

Core and Distal

In modern dance and when we teach movement to children, we often talk about the relationship between the head and tail, the right and left sides of the body, and the upper and lower parts of the body. We instinctively learn these elements when we are young, as we build our proprioception and our awareness of our own body in space and time in relationship to the world around us.

When we talk about feet, we’re also talking about the distal ends of the body. Your hands and the crown of your head are also your distal ends. Your abdomen, pelvis, and ribs are your core, sometimes referred to as “proximal.” In the dance teaching method called “Brain Dance,” the core-distal relationship is considered one of the essential movement distinctions we learn as children. The dance teacher in this video explores core and distal with her young students.

When you’re practicing, it might feel like your fingers and toes are the most difficult to keep mental track of, and that’s because they are farthest away from your core. When you are fully aware of your distal ends, you might feel that you have a greater kinesthetic sensation in these parts, which you must harness to keep your feet on time.

Releve or Flat? Choose One

In the Salimpour School of Dance, we place a lot of importance on the position of the foot, specifically whether or not it is flat or relevé. While this is not the case with all approaches to belly dance, nor all dance forms, I have observed that the stronger a dancer’s foot placement, the more secure they appear, the clearer their hipwork becomes, and the more free they are with their upper body.

When it comes to being in relevé, or demi-point, the foot must be as high up as it can go on to the metatarsals. Anywhere in between flat and demi-point becomes a kind of kinesiological no-man’s land. I’ve noticed in my years of teaching that when a dancer allows their foot to be somewhere in between releve and flat, they sink into their knees, and the rest of their entire body responds a bit slower, their hip work less clear, and their posture less upright. We jokingly call this in-between place “flat-evé.” When a dancer’s releve is strong, high, and solid, their entire body is more free.

Indeed, when a dancer is flat-footed, a similar principle applies. When a dancer distributes their weight evenly between the ball of the foot and the heel, their body feels more secure. When you are dancing, pay attention to your heels. Are they on the floor when when you are flat-footed? Are they pressed as high as your flexibility will allow when in demi-point?

Whether or not you are flat or relevé, imagine your whole foot as being supple and flexible. We might think of the foot as being one unit, but there are 26 bones in the human foot, all working with each other to keep you balanced.

Learn the Feet, Learn the Choreography

When I see dancers who struggle with learning choreography, often it’s because they feel overwhelmed with the intricate parts of a dance. They might want to get the correct position of the arms, or the hip work. They might also struggle to look like the instructor, following along as best they can.

But I can assure you that if you focus on the timing and placement of the feet, the entire choreography will start to fall into place.

When learning a choreography in a form such as belly dance, which is driven almost entirely by the music, the feet must connect to the rhythms and pulses of the songs to which we dance. Once you learn the footwork, the rest of the dance will be so much easier to remember and perform.

Get Your Feet on The Beat

When you are dancing, your feet are your metronome. In ballet, this is obvious. At the barre work on our tendu, elevé, relevé, pas de bourree, all on specific counts in the music. This detailed and meticulous attention to the timing of our footwork is essential for ballet, particularly when dancing in an ensemble. The presentational nature of ballet requires that we dance in unison with our fellow dancers. But in ballet class, often we are working on our barre and center work to solo piano music. In belly dance class, the music to which we drill often has more than just on instrument.

I’m hardly one to imply that ballet is the ultimate dance form. That’s hardly the case. Many other dances also rely on the timing of the feet to drive the movement of the entire body. Partner dances from Salsa to ballroom to Dance Sport all require that the feet be on a specific foot at a specific time. Even improvisational social dance forms like Lindy Hop have specific timings for the feet. When both partners can tap into the rhythm of the music, they can create extemporaneous dance magic.

House dance features complex footwork, often inspired by Salsa and other Latin dances. Check out “Kapelson” Kapela Marna physicalizing Azaelia Bank’s rapping with his feet. You can practically hear the rhythm of her voice through his sneakers!

Embody the Rhythm Through Your Feet

The next time you learn a choreography, or even the next time you drill your technique, find the beat with your feet. Imagine that the drum beat of the song to which you are dancing is actually driving your steps. Whether or not your feet are stepping in a chasse, or on the eighth or quarter notes, or even in 16th notes as in a Choo Choo, the music must be the impetus of when the sole of the foot makes contact with the floor.

When faced with a choreography that you find difficult to learn or retain, start with the feet first. Listen to how the feet reflect the music. What instrument are they physicalizing?

Once you start truly embodying the rhythm and pulse of a song through your feet, you’ll find that the rest of your dancing will take less effort, and hopefully allow you to connect with the music even more.



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6 Travel Tips for Dancers: Staying Well on the Road

As a child, going to the airport filled me with wonder and excitement. The smell of jet fuel and the hustle and bustle of the airport still means, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “I’m going on an adventure!”

As an adult, I’ve spent a big part of my dancing career traveling to cities at odd hours to teach and perform in places I’ve never been before. It’s a fantastic job, and I am grateful for every moment of it.

With all my years of travel, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve also learned that as I get older, my body doesn’t recover from travel as quickly as it used to. I’ve come up with survival techniques to keep limber and agile, even after being on a plane for 10 hours straight.

So, even if you’re not a dancer, or if you don’t even travel all that often, but just don’t want your body to feel like crap when you arrive, these little travel tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

Heads up. This post contains affiliate links.

Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

6 Travel Tips for Dancers (and other people with bodies)

1) Rollers and other self-massage devices. This might sound dirty, but self-massage devices are the best thing for a weary traveler. No, not that kind of massager. I’m talking the kind that you roll out your cranky and sore muscles.

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

My favorite is the TP Therapy GRID roller. It’s short, and hollow on the inside. I can fill it up with small clothing items so it takes up very little space in my luggage. Plus, if you happen to pick up a bottle of your favorite libation while on the road, the GRID roller doubles as a protective carrying case… Not that I’ve ever done that before.

Other small, but effective, tools include lacrosse balls and stick rollers. I love this Gaiam spiky stick roller, but you’re best off packing it in your checked luggage.

2) 4-Wheel Spinner Luggage. Nothing frustrates me more than a bag that won’t stand up on its own, and worse if it’s difficult to maneuver through crowded airport and train terminals. After a trip to Europe when I had to manipulate two unwieldy, unbalanced suitcases full of costumes and products for sale, I resolved to replace my bags with upright spinners as soon as I got back to the US. Because I refuse to be stingy when it comes to luggage and shoes (see #5 in this post), I’m still using those bags, seven years later.

A quality spinner will be nearly effortless to move, and your body will be grateful for not having to drag your stuff along behind you. If you’re on a budget, because luggage isn’t cheap, check out your local Ross, Marshall’s, or TJMaxx. There’s no reason to pay full price for name-brand luggage.

3) Water water water. This one’s obvious, but flying can make us feel like human raisins. Muscles, fascia, and tendons need constant hydration to stay at tip top shape, so don’t be like me and make the mistake of not drinking enough water while traveling. Most of my injuries can probably be traced back to not staying sufficiently hydrated.

Bring a refillable water bottle (empty, so you don’t get busted at the TSA checkpoint, or you’ll find yourself chugging 16+ ounces of water very, very quickly), and don’t be afraid to ask restaurants in the terminals to fill it up for you. Some terminals have filtered water stations (San Francisco International marks them on airport maps as “Hydration Stations.” How very Silicon Valley of them.)

If you need extra hydration, pack along some Emergen-C or other electrolyte formulas. The ones that come in tablet form travel best, but individual packets of powders work well, too. Make sure your bottle is rugged enough to get beat up. I travel with an insulated bottle that I can fill with cold or hot drinks.

4) Snacks. Snacks on a plane! Haha… ha… nevermind. Anyhoo… Like many 21st-century Californians, I have dietary restrictions. I can’t eat wheat because it triggers my chronic inflammation, and I avoid dairy, eggs, and meat.

Even if you can eat anything without feeling like someone is stabbing you in the large intestine, you might have noticed that plane food is expensive and unsatisfying. If you’re lucky to be flying out of an airport with decent restaurants (i.e., not Chicago O’Hare which has almost nothing for the gluten-free traveler), eat a large-ish meal in the terminal before you board… and be prepared for the rest of your trip with ample snacks.

I bring nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and chocolate (of course!). I also bring along my favorite tea bags to keep some semblance of normalcy and comfort when I arrive at my destination (which I brew in my insulated water bottle). Remember that you can’t bring liquids or pastes on the plane, so leave that hummus at home, you fellow food weirdo.

Merrell discontinued these boots, so I bought an extra pair. Looks like Amazon still has some, though!

5) Shoes. I have a lot of feelings about shoes and travel. Our feet are our first line of defense against gravity, and a crappy pair of shoes will make your entire body ache. Dancers don’t have time for that. Heck, parents, businesspeople, and vacationers don’t have time for that either! I also don’t have time or packing space for bringing lots of different shoes with me when traveling. Personally, I get grumpy if I have to bring more than the shoes that I wear on the plane and maybe an extra pair of flip-flops for times I don’t need to go far, like from a hotel room to the breakfast buffet.

My requirements for shoes? Easy to take off and put back on (because airport security), versatile for the purpose of my trip, flat soled, supportive, and comfortable like slippers. A good pair of shoes should last for over two years, minimum. I’m particular to the Merrell brand for my weird, narrow feet, but for the love of all that is holy, don’t be one of those people that wears flip-flops or 4-inch stiletto high heels. You don’t want to have to run to a connection with shoes like that, and both will likely make your joints very grumpy.

6) STRETCH. You know that weirdo in the back of the plane, near the galley and the lavatories, contorting themselves into some weird yoga poses as you try to get by? Don’t be afraid to be that person. Keep your blood flowing and stretch, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings, which inevitably are shorted when you sit in those tiny little airplane seats. In addition, those seats fit about 1% of the population. The rest of us are too short or too tall. Plus, if you get up and head to the back of the plane for a bit, you can ask the flight attendants for more water… or for the wonder that is tomato juice, which we all know you only drink when you’re on a plane.

How I want to dress on planes. (Randy from A Christmas Story.)

Bonus: 7) Stay Warm. If you’re one of those people who is always cold, you understand. And for dancers, the cold can be a formidable foe for our bodies. Bring a jacket on the plane that you can also use as a blanket, as well as a big scarf that can keep your neck and head warm if you get blasted by the plane ventilation system. If it’s too cold to stay seated, and it’s safe to move about the cabin, get up and go stretch out near the galley.

Traveling dancers: What are your favorite tips for keeping limber and ready to move when you travel?





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Adult Dancers: You Are Making Progress

getting-betterAdult dance students are often quite hard on themselves. We take all of our adult baggage into the studio classroom with us (and I use “we” because I do it too!), and expect to be able to do anything the teacher asks of us perfectly the first time.

Well, when put that way, it sounds a bit ridiculous. No one can do anything perfectly the first time. So why do we pressure ourselves like this when learning a new skill, particularly one as challenging as dance?

Adults need more time to learn

We adults should be kinder to our beginner selves. Being a beginner is an exhilarating and inspiring experience if we allow it to be. Not only does allowing ourselves to learn and make mistakes make the whole “learning new things” thing easier and less stressful, but our adult brains just don’t take in information as quickly and in as large amounts as they did when we were younger.

In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus notes that adults, with their limited time to practice and diminished brain plasticity, have to learn new information in smaller chunks than children. He also says that kids learn new things so quickly because their brains are growing and developing so quickly, they often have more time to devote to learning a new thing—unfettered by jobs, raising kids, household chores, and other “adult” responsibilities—and they are, of course, often way less self-conscious than adults are when learning something new. Being a child means learning new things every day.

Adults, however… we think people are judging us, and we have egos to feed, and we want to feel accomplished because we’re all grown up and that’s what grown up people do: they accomplish things and do them well, and we can’t possibly take up something new and look like a beginner again. That would be… embarrassing.

Dance isn’t easy. We do things in the studio that we often don’t do in daily life. That’s the appeal, isn’t it? We don’t do plies, 6-steps, or upper back curves while walking down the grocery aisle (well, I know some of you do, and keep on with your bad selves). So why do we expect to be able to do a new move or technique in the studio classroom the first time the teacher asks it of us?

Stick with it

Then if you do stick with dancing, you might not think that you’re getting better at all. There’s that phenomenon that happens that when you are involved in something regularly, it’s so difficult to see your progress in that activity. Or when you have children, you might not see on a daily basis how quickly they’re growing, but a relative who hasn’t seen them in a year will blurt out the inevitable, “Wow! They’ve gotten so BIG!” You look down at your kids and think, “Well, yes, but I see them everyday…”

That’s my job as an instructor, though: To see my students every week (or more), and also recognize the overall, long-term progress that they are making. I’ve had students for over a few years now who might not think that they have improved at all, but I can see how their technique is stronger, their timing more accurate, and their posture lengthened. And part of my job is to tell them that I do see it, even if they don’t see it themselves.

As students of anything, we must find instructors (and I suspect most teachers of anything) who can see the micro-level of the day-to-day—giving subtle technical and timing reminders and, of course, encouragements—as well as the macro, month-to-month, year-to-year progress that each student makes in their own time.

Everyone improves at their own pace

All of us will improve at our own pace. Some of us will progress very quickly, and others will have to take their time in a particular level or class for months, maybe years. It’s so easy for us as adults to compare ourselves to the other students in class, but we have to recognize that each of us is going to learn and progress in different ways. Each of us has our gifts and each of us has our challenges. And if you look back a year, you’ll see how much you’ve gotten better.

I guarantee that if you’re going to class regularly, you are getting better. There’s almost no other option but to improve!

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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. You want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way.

It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class. Then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure. They won’t think you’re weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class.

Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up.

If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything.

That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!